Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice 6:00 pm, 6th May 2008

If my right hon. Friend waits for a minute, he will see that I do not think that dealing with the problem by talking about what language is acceptable will ever work. Substantive control, as opposed to procedural control, has fundamental flaws, which is why the Conservatives are in a contradictory position. They are putting forward two contradictory ways of dealing with the problem.

To return to the point made by Nick Herbert, one of the problems with the Lords amendment is the statement

"for the avoidance of doubt".

I do not think there is much doubt about what the provisions mean. Including a provision with the words "for the avoidance of doubt" automatically suggests that there is something to be doubtful about. In the past, such provisions have been inserted in legislation when the courts have said things that are contradictory or unclear. Parliament then says, "For the avoidance of doubt, this interpretation is the correct one." There is not yet any court interpretation of the legislation for there to be any doubt about because it has not been passed yet.

The second problem with the Lords amendment are the words "of itself"—as if words can ever float free of context. Words are always used in context, and it is the context that tells us what is going on. Among the Conservatives, there seems to be a naive belief in an abstract notion of language, whereby words have their own existence outside of human beings, human minds or human forms of life. There is no such thing as a context-free sentence—it makes no sense. Every time the Conservatives try to explain how their provision would work, they run into that problem.

The third problem with the Lords amendment relates to context and how people use words. Urging someone to refrain from particular sexual conduct sounds okay, but it can easily become a code or euphemism for something that, in context, really is threatening. We have seen that in, for example, the way the British National party used religion as an indirect way of attacking people on the basis of race. Society never stands still, and the meanings of words never stand still. Contexts change and words that might appear at one stage to be innocent will not be so at a later stage. The provisions are dangerous, and the problem lies in attempting to solve the problem by saying that there are some permitted words and some unpermitted ones. Such an approach will always run into the problem that words do not have abstract meanings; they have meanings only in social contexts.

The second way we have been offered to solve the problem is through guidance. The Minister offers us, through the Crown Prosecution Service, guidance to prosecutors on how the provisions should be used. That is not an inconsiderable offer, but it would be even better if the duty to provide guidance were included in the Bill.